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Newfoundland's Best-in-show

© By Ann Wallace

It wasn't until a Newfoundland dog won the "Best in Show" title at the prestigious Westminster Dog Show in New York a few years ago that I started to ponder the place of these dogs in the psyche of Newfoundlanders. Had the fact that a Newfoundland dog won such a prestigious title been celebrated in the land that bore its name? Were Newfoundland dogs revered in this land? There was only one way to find out!
     I left Toronto on a cold March morning bound for St. John's, capital of Newfoundland, my first visit, and I was excited for this province holds a fine reputation among Canadians for offering visitors a warm welcome along with spectacular scenery. En route, I read publicity collected from the United States about Josh, the Westminster prizewinner, a resident of New Jersey.
     'Would Josh be entering other dog shows?'
     'No, now he's the Champion of Champions he will be retiring from show life.'
     'Does Josh have another job?'
     'Indeed he does; he's a therapy dog at a children's hospital and a local Parkinson's Association clinic.'
     My reading material for the trip included the handsome Travel Guide published by Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Tourism. There were gorgeous photographs of rocky coasts, tranquil lakeside campsites, lighthouses, icebergs, St. John's fine harbour and lots of birds, but only one tiny image of a Newfoundland dog frolicking on a distant beach. Things didn't look promising.
     Snow flurries were in the air as I arrived, but the temperature was mild, and I soon set off, guidebook in hand, to explore the city. My first destination was the honoured harbourside site where, on the Feast of St. John the Baptist in 1497, John Cabot set foot on New World soil and planted Great Britain's flag. Today, Canada's distinctive red and white flag is flown over a small parkette that marks the spot. I ventured down the snowy entrance steps and proceeded to the harbour wall, looking around for Cabot's statue. There was none. But, oh how thrilled I was to see the statues that were there! My mission had already been fulfilled: on one of North America's most historic spots stood statues of two dogs - a Labrador and a Newfoundland. And that wasn't all. Close to them, were two large plaques with the headings 'Our Labrador (Retriever)' and 'Our Newfoundland' and several paragraphs about each breed. General information about the sculptures themselves revealed that "they are 1.5 times larger than life, created in a standing position to encourage personal touching, even climbing on" and that they are "cast in lead-and-zinc-free silicon bronze that will develop a beautiful patina from the salt-rich air." Then, the words, "No Province or State in North America has had the good fortune of our Province, to be the home of TWO world-famous, immensely popular, extremely friendly, companion dogs. These statues of Our Newfoundland and Labrador Dogs have been created and placed here for the pleasure of our people and our visitors, some of whom may not have viewed these splendid animals before."
     As snow continued to settle on the parkette, I thought a bite of lunch in one of St. John's renowned pubs would be a good idea, so I shouldered my camera and set off down the main street. It wasn't long before a hearty bowl of soup and a glass of smooth ale was before me and I was chatting with one of the locals. "Oh sure, we love our dogs, and were thrilled when a Newf won the Westminster Dog Show" said my new companion, Frank Pennell, a St. John's taxi driver. "Have you been to the Visitor Centre up on Signal Hill? And have you seen our anti-cruelty-to-animals plaque?" I scribbled notes and directions and soon was off again, with Frank calling after me not to forget him if I needed a ride anywhere.
     Signal Hill is a 'must' for visitors. It was here that Marconi received his first transatlantic wireless message in December 1901. The area is now a National Historic Site with a handsome Visitor Centre. Following Frank's directions, I made my way to the Archival Photo Gallery in the centre. I peered and read and peered again and learned much about the history of the province. And soon I found the exhibit that I was especially looking for. An old black-and-white photograph showed a marching band comprised of members of the distinguished Royal Newfoundland Regiment prior to leaving Canadian shores to serve in WWI. Leading this marching band of brave souls was a Newfoundland dog! I found the plaque that Frank mentioned, bearing a relief carving of a black Labrador above the moving words:
     "Be this a symbol that we mean to stand
     Against all cruelty throughout the land
     Until man's greater understanding brings
     Kindness and mercy to all living things."
     As I lay in bed on my first night in Newfoundland I thought, "Yes, this surely is a place that loves its dogs." For not only had I seen statues and plaques and old photographs honouring the special dogs of Newfoundland, but I had also seen many breeds out walking with their owners in the streets and parks of the city. The selection of breeds had seemed similar to any place: terriers, poodles, spaniels, mongrels and, yes indeed, a number of Labradors, had all been represented. But I hadn't seen one Newfoundland. "That," I decided, "will be my quest tomorrow."
     I arose next morning to brilliant sunshine, though the temperature was colder than the previous day. Light bounced off the city's multi-coloured row houses and danced on the ripples in the harbour as I made my way to the local tourist office, hoping my request would not seem strange. I need not have worried. The staff told me they were very proud of the Westminster Dog Show win and they explained that Newfs were indeed popular in Newfoundland, but, because of their size, they tended to live in rural homes. And yes, of course they could help me find some Newfs. In fact there was a breeder in the village of Flatrock, a lovely 20 minute drive away along the coast. It was time to give Frank Pennell a call.
     Soon we were bouncing our way along the coast road, a beautiful drive with views of towering cliffs, soaring sea birds and the pounding Atlantic. We found the pretty home we were searching for without difficulty and soon I was meeting not only the young owner but also her family of 'Newfs,' German-born Nero, the patriarch of the family; Nana from Nova Scotia; Canadian Champions Oso and Sini; and fellow award-winner Lola, who has now taken over the role of breeding female from Sini. What fabulous animals.
     It was time for some research. "How did these dogs come to be in this wild corner of the world in the first place?" I wondered. Apparently the origin of the Newfoundland dog is a mystery, but many theories exist. Some believe the dogs' chief ancestor to be the Pyrenean sheep dog, which it greatly resembles. This breed could have been brought to Newfoundland by Basque fishermen in the 1500's. These would later have crossed with spaniels, mastiffs and other dogs brought to North American shores by the British, Portuguese, Spanish and French. Another hypothesis is that the Newf is a descendant of the Tibetan Mastiff, though it is unknown how these dogs could have reached Newfoundland. However, a favoured theory involves the Norsemen and is based on the idea that in around 1000 A.D. Leifr Eirikson brought with him a large black 'Bear Dog' that itself could have descended from the Tibetan Mastiff. Left behind by Eirikson, these dogs adapted and developed into a web-footed water dog that would have been found by Cabot and then crossed with the European dogs that followed.
     What is known is that the Newf was then trained by the fisher folk who settled on these shores into a multi-talented animal that was a combined work, water and boat-dog. They show exceptional strength, endurance and intelligence and the ability to withstand an often wet, windy and cold environment. Although now generally favoured as loyal pets, the Newf retains his distinctive courage and resourcefulness for lifesaving in the water.
     The history of the Labrador is better known. He was descended from the Newfoundland, but was mated with English Setters and Pointers to produce a smaller animal with good gaming capabilities. At first he was known as the Lesser Newfoundland, or St. John's Dog, and only when imported into England around 1830 did he become known as the Labrador. He was finally registered in England in 1903 and has, for the past dozen years, held the accolade of being the world's most popular breed. His popularity over his ancestor is, without doubt, due to his smaller size - he's about half the weight of a Newf - which means he is more suited to home life (or smaller boats), is more economical to keep and requires a lot less grooming. But like the Newf, the Labrador is a gentle and loyal companion as we all know.

Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com

Photo credits
Ann Wallace

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